There are few things better than discovering a new writer who fills a gap in your life and on your bookshelves that you hadn’t realised needed filling. From early on, reading C.F. Peterson‘s novel Errant Blood felt like I was with the latest from a favourite writer. There was something reassuringly familiar about the style and content which made me feel in safe hands. That impression proved correct as themes of family, mortality, morality, love, and betrayal are examined in a fresh and invigorating manner.
I’ll be upfront about the main reason for this familiarity for me. Errant Blood is, at its best, reminiscent of Iain Banks, and I do not say that lightly. Banks is one of my favourite writers and it’s rare for me to raise his name when reviewing. Expectations are set high as I understand implicitly what that means, but in this case the comparison is unavoidable. There is a central character returning home who has a past, present and possibly a future to deal with. There are familial secrets and lies, childhood friendships and events which shape adult lives, local and historic fueds to be faced, criminals who demand satisfaction, and a second story strand which at first appears unrelated. All of these are motifs which could be found in the work of Banks, and Errant Blood reminded me of just what I have been missing.
However, I am not for a moment suggesting that Errant Blood is simply a facsimile of an Iain Banks’ novel – that would be completely unfair. Peterson takes these tropes in new directions – there is a dreamlike feel in places, a love for anagrams and word play, as well as cultural in-jokes (two detectives are named John Maclean and William Boyd). There is also a black sense of humour in evidence which is all Peterson’s own.
The central character is Eamon Ansgar, who is returning to the family home (or castle) in the Highland village of Duncul from time spent fighting in the hostile regions of Afghanistan and the City Of London. Part of his reason for this homecoming is to shut himself away from the world, but the world won’t listen. Ghosts of his past come to haunt him, but some of them mean him very real harm. It’s always difficult to review a thriller and avoid giving plot spoilers away, but I can safely say there is murder, drugs, the appearance of old flames, and land disputes. If you didn’t know this was written by a Scot before you started reading then all the clues are there.
Where Peterson really shines is with his ensemble ‘cast’. Heroes and villains are present but not so correct. The former are flawed, and at least one of the latter is prone to an existential crisis of conscience. And then there is Rona, a local girl who represents both hope and regret for Eamon. We are never told explicitly their past, but that is because I doubt either of them know for sure themselves what did or did not happen. It reads like the sort of relationship with has been mythologised through time and distance to mean more than either of them can really understand.
Meanwhile there is the epic journey of an African immigrant, the strange crew of Rage III, a 50-foot yacht making its way north, the mysterious past of local ‘eccentric’ Stevie Van, and criminals, hoods and assassins of various shapes and sizes (and nationalities). It all makes for one of the most gripping reads of this year or last. Errant Blood heralds the appearance of an entertaining and thought-provoking new voice in Scottish writing – one who knows how to keep the reader turning the page. Make room on your shelves for C.F Peterson as the good news is this is planned as the first book in a series, and I can’t wait to read what happens next.